July 12, 2010

Safeties lead the way

Ranking Kent State's defensive position groups isn't an easy task. Sure, there's little challenge in identifying the top position group, that's the safeties where fifth-year seniors Brian Lainhart and Dan Hartman have been mainstays for the past three seasons.

Beyond the safeties, it's tough to put in order the remaining position groups. Each group is represented by at least one very talented and reliable player, such as at linebacker where first-team all-Mid-American Conference performer Cobrani Mixon plays or up front where senior defensive end Monte Simmons ranks fourth in school history with 16 career sacks.

Even at cornerback the Flashes have a special talent in junior Josh Pleasant, Kent State's defensive rookie of the year in 2008 and a starter in all of the Golden Flashes 12 games last season.

Putting the position groups in order meant not only evaluating the starting players at each position but also considering the depth at the position.

Here are KentSportsReport.com's rankings of Kent State's defensive position groups:

1. Safety
This was a no-brainer. With a two-time all-conference performer and another player with 22 career starts, the Golden Flashes are extremely talented at the safety position.

In 2009 free safety and two-year captainBrian Lainhart became Kent State's first defensive back selected to the MAC's first team since 1988. All he did was lead the conference with seven interceptions, pushing his career total to 15. A second-team all-MAC selection in 2008, Lainhart has 256 career tackles and has started in 32 of the 34 games in which he has appeared.

Strong safety Dan Hartman has started 22 of the 34 games in which he has appeared, racking up 149 tackles along the way. In 2009 he recorded a career-high 72 stops and finished fifth in the conference with 13 passes defended.

Lainhart's and Hartman's durability left little time for the Flashes to develop depth at the position. Redshirt sophomore Leon Green saw action in 11 of 12 games last fall, mainly on special teams, and sophomore Zach Gonosz emerged at free safety as he played in 10 games. He was one of just nine true freshmen to earn a letter.

2. Linebacker
Two-time co-captain Cobrani Mixon is the obvious leader of the linebacker corps. After transferring from Michigan in 2007 Mixon earned a starting role in the middle of Kent State's defense in 2008. That year he posted 73 tackles and two sacks in eight starts. Last fall he was named first team all-conference after recording 108 tackles. He was 34th nationally with 9.9 tackles per game.

Sophomore Luke Batton wasted little time making his presence known last fall. As a freshman Batton recorded 26 tackles in 10 games after entering the fall as a potential redshirt candidate. Batton excelled in camp and earned a spot on the Flashes' two-deep. He enters the 2010 season as the starter at weakside linebacker.

Rounding out the projected starters at linebacker is senior Will Johnson. Last fall Johnson recorded just six tackles in eight games after moving to linebacker from safety.

Several players will compete for starting roles when camp opens in August. Senior Dorian Wood has started nine games over the past three seasons and turned in a strong spring in place of Mixon, who sat out spring drills as he recovered from an injury. Wood recorded 58 tackles in 11 games last season.

Senior Howard Bowens has seen action in 30 games over his three years at Kent State. He has 25 tackles to his credit.

Sophomore Kent Walker appeared in eight games last season and was one of the nine true freshmen to letter. Walker suffered an injury that prevented him from participating in spring drills.

3. Defensive Line
Up front senior defensive end Monte Simmons has been a regular for the Golden Flashes over the past three years. The second-team all-conference performer has started nine of the 36 games in which he has played. Simmons ranks fourth in school history with 16 career sacks.

Rounding out Kent State's starters at defensive line are senior nose tackle Quinton Rainey, junior defensive tackle Ishmaa'ily Kitchen and junior defensive end Lee Stalker. That trio has combined for 10 starts in 36 games and 54 total tackles.

Zach Williams, Dana Brown, Jake Dooley and Devonte' Helms provide the depth. In five starts last season Williams recorded 21 tackles. Brown recorded 12 tackles in 12 games and was one of nine true freshmen to letter. Dooley was limited to special teams action in 2009 while Helms redshirted.

4. Cornerback
It's not that Kent State doesn't have talent at cornerback. Junior Josh Pleasant has played in 23 games over the past two seasons; he started all 12 games in 2009. His 73 tackles last fall were good for third on the team and he broke-up 11 passes and defended another 12 pass attempts and forced three fumbles.

Junior walk-on Norman Wolfe saw action in 11 games last season, making 27 tackles. He entered the spring as Pleasant's back-up but that could change now that Chris Gilbert, the projected starter across from Pleasant this spring, moved back to offense.

The good news here is that senior Kirk Belgrave was declared academically eligible for the 2010 season. That's a big boost for a position that not only needs to establish it's starting players but needed a boost to its depth chart.

Stay tuned to KentSportsReport.com for the offensive position rankings.

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